Tag Archives: Obama

Casus Belli, Syria & Chemical Weapons

url  Our international system rests on two pillars: states are sovereign, and they shall not, for the most part, attack each other.  Both of these are reflected in the U.N. charter which recognizes two exceptions: an attack in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolution or in defense of one’s self or collective.  The U.S. is now faced with either abiding by these laws or abandoning them for a possible unlawful intervention in Syria.  For all its disregard for law, including the recent use of chemical weapons, the Syrian regime has not given up its own sovereignty.   As a matter of international law the conflict continues to be an internal despite the violent spill over into Turkey and Lebanon.

The first exception to the rule covers any intervention supported by the Security Council.  The U.S. had such a mandate in Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia and the most recent Gulf War.  Due to a likely veto from Russia and China that deals with any Syrian intervention there is little possibility for U.N. sanction.

The second exception applies to defense of self or the collective.  Under this ruling Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Iraq or Lebanon could respond as could their allies in NATO.  Legally this is a very grey area. Despite the occasional skirmish on Turkish or Israeli borders this may not have created a justification for war.

Some may argue that states have a right to self-defense in the form of a preemptive attack.  However, this theory has a troubled past not the least of which is due to the U.S. justification of the Iraq war, not to mention it relies heavily on proof of imminent threat and intent. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of intent from the Assad regime and these are historically hard to prove.

The U.S. will likely compile an argument based on the chemical weapons usage and horrors taken place within Syria, of which there are many, and argue the adverse impacts on the region.  As in the case of Kosovo, this argument produces a war that is unlawful, but justifiable nonetheless.  This argument is made even more murky by the fact that Syria has never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and thus may not be held to a law they never signed.

The Obama administration must also wrestle with U.S. law as well as international.  The Constitution divides power between the Executive and the Congress which has the ability to declare war, raise taxes to support war and set the rules for war.  The Justice Department decided in 2011 that the President could launch attacks into Libya as long as “such use of force was in national interest” and the duration “would not trigger Congressional approval.” The argument that Syria now threatens regional stability is certainly plausible but may not be enough to sway Congress.

When we feel passionate about a conflict it is easy to dismiss these laws as unnecessary constraints on American power.  However, international law has a value more than its codification of normative values.  The slope between war and peace can be very slippery and the treaties, laws and institutions act as road signs and brakes on that slope allowing us weigh the enormous costs of war.  By following international law we could slow the slide to war and build a legal, moral and truly international force.

Syria: Military Intervention or Realist Chess Game?

I’m a little late to the party, but I feel the discussion on Obama’s strategy in Syria could use some revising. The death toll in Syria has reached 100,000 and 1.6 million refugees have fled the area. The Obama Administration has evidence of nerve gas used by Assad.  Obama has even stated the Administration will provide weapons to the opposition forces. But to what end?

Arguments abound in the media, both for and against, in predictable points of view for our involvement in Syria. Citing the awful death toll,  the hard drawn line of the use of chemical weapons, and, on the other hand, the dangers of military intervention in such a mission.  While these are all valid arguments, I feel they miss the larger point and therefore the real goal of the Obama White House.   

Obama has long been an adherent to Realism the political theory where states primary goal is the obtainment of resources, act on self interest through military build up, often leading to a security dilemma.   

On paper, Obama has a very clear goal — to support a rebel victory that results in Assad’s removal. He believes that opposition forces are the best way to go about achieving that goal.  He may also be attempting to balance the power in the region with Iran and drain Russia and Hezbollah of resources. In a classic Realism when your enemy gains, you accelerate supplies; when your enemy faces loses, ease back gain.    

If Syria has become a Realist chess board then Obama will have accept some rather dubious claims including that arming the opposition forces will:

1)   Halt the regime’s gains and give the forces a fighting chance

2)   Win influence over the groups and the people they defend

3)   Balance the power that Iran, Al Nursa or any Sunni forces may have gained

4)   Unite the more secular forces and drive out Al Qaeda backed groups

What’s wrong with these points? A few things…

· The Syrian Army uses attack helicopters and tanks to bombard towns from far away so small arms will not help the Syrian forces make gains nor improve defenses

·Interventions like this tend the prolong conflict  

·Research shows that external support generally fractures groups 

·No research has ever proven that a patron or country can reliably “buy” influence from a group or groups 

 

In order for Iran to lose this chess match, the rebels have to make political and military gains.  For Iran, a victory would just be avoiding an outright U.S. win.  If Obama’s gamble fails it will only reinforce just how weak U.S. influence in the region has become. And then, checkmate.    

Despite the tragedy that is the loss of life, culture and history of Syria, a greater one awaits the Syria population if this power game continues.  They will not be collateral damage. They will not even be pawns. They simply will be the board on which this game of power struggle continues.  

Many commentators, including David Brooks, have made comparisons to a Post 9-11 Iraq. This is folly. Instead, I recommend we view this situation as Afghanistan in the 1980s where President Reagan made the decision to arm opposition forces to combat the Soviet Union. A choice that birthed some the same forces we face in Syria today in the form of Al Nursa and Al Qaeda.

Limiting the discussion of whether or not to intervene not only misses the underlying issue but is short sighted.  Why limit your tools to only rooks and bishops that attack in straight predictable lines?  Predictable military strategies result in a lot of time being wasted attacking and defending positions instead of looking at all the players on the board and seeing what is happening.

Acknowledging where this great chess game is going and getting the players to sit down for diplomatic talks requires a more flexible strategy with more flexible players. If Obama wants to reach any end game in Syria he needs to release his knights. Jump over near by obstacles and get to the heart of the matter. U.S. foreign policy has been here before, a diplomatic response would go a long way improve relations with Gulf States and U.S. standing.